What could have been an orgy of cheap shots and acrimony turned out instead to be a thoughtful exchange on the question of governmental assistance versus self-help in the fight for black equality.
That is not to say that the "debate" at the 75th annual conference of the National Urban League was reduced to a kissing contest. There were clear, and clearly enunciated, differences between Bernard Anderson of Princeton, whose views are traditional liberalism, and Glenn Loury of Harvard, one of the newly prominent black conservatives.
But the differences that had the packed Sheraton Washington ballroom expecting fireworks turned out to be primarily differences of emphasis and approach.
Anderson, for instance, focused less on his disagreements with Loury than on his differences with the neoconservatives (he mentioned Charles Murray specifically) who contend that social programs designed to alleviate the plight of the poor have in fact left them worse off, or who argue that the free market is more likely than the government to reduce racial inequality.
"Those who would urge us now, in the name of self-help and individual initiative, to abandon our efforts to pressure government into acting on our behalf are really advocating a dangerous and self-defeating strategy in which the power of the state would be used to protect and extend the interests of virtually every other group except the black population," Anderson said.
Loury's point was not that government has no responsibility in the resolution of social problems, including racial ones, but that some of the problems facing black America today are beyond the reach of government and also beyond the reach of a civil-rights approach.
The "civil-rights approach," in Loury's definition, consists of identifying the cause of problems as racist in origin and then seeking judicial or administrative relief.
Loury did the now-familiar litany of "underclass" problems -- three-fourths of the children in some neighborhoods born out of wedlock, high-school dropout rates reaching upwards of 60 percent, fewer black women graduating from college than giving birth while in high school -- as examples of trends that cannot be reversed by civil-rights methods.
Anderson, on the other hand, looks at the same problems as proof that the government needs to do more, not less. "The government -- our government -- is charged from its inception with promoting the general welfare, the health and happiness of all people." Does he discount the idea of self- help individual initiative? Not at all, except to point out that "self-help and individual are also expressed and fulfilled when black people act as the conscience of America to keep the nation from turning its back on the promise of opportunity."
Does Loury see no role for government? Of course not, except to say that some problems, though doubtless spawned by racism, have now "taken on a life of their own" and cannot be solved by merely ending racism. And to the degree that the solution dictates changed behavior and changed attitudes, blacks and black leadership must assume the burden because government cannot.
But if the one fears too much talk about self-help will excuse the abdication of government, the other is concerned that too much looking to government for what it cannot do threatens to exhaust such "scarce resources" as the "time and attention of those engaged in the advocacy but also the goodwill and tolerance of those expected to respond."
My impression was that the Urban League audience (which I had thought would be hostile to the Loury point of view) in fact shared both men's misgivings and was glad for the chance to hear their views unfiltered by the press.